Cindi Ross Scoppe

Why things could be different this time for Allendale schools

Students explore iPads at Allendale Elementary School, one of four schools in the district.
Students explore iPads at Allendale Elementary School, one of four schools in the district.

WILL MOLLY Spearman be the one? Will she master the politics and personalities and the cultural, social and, yes, racial pitfalls surrounding the Allendale County School District and succeed where the district itself has failed? Where Inez Tenenbaum failed and superintendents before and after her didn’t even dare try?

It’s possible.

If so, it’ll be because South Carolina’s education superintendent was able to use the lessons learned from those who came before her, because of what might have been a huge tactical error by school board members too arrogant to think through their actions, and because of a little-known new partner that her predecessors didn’t have.

Before she can succeed, though, she has to be allowed to try, and that might take some doing.

In a lawsuit filed just two days after Ms. Spearman declared a state of emergency and took over the Allendale schools, the school board raised what looks to me like a legitimate question about the constitutionality of a budget proviso that gives the superintendent this power.

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Why Allendale schools don’t want the state’s help

A review of Allendale’s leadership, academics and operations (PDF)

S.C. school district, fighting state takeover, ‘has failed the children,’ parent says

Education chief seizes control of failing, rural S.C. school district

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Fortunately, permanent state law gives superintendents the same power — although it requires a more tedious process that Ms. Spearman’s spokesman told me she decided to sidestep in Allendale County because “the timeline is much more extensive and we felt that the gross negligence and mismanagement by the previous superintendent and board warranted immediate action.” If I were Ms. Spearman, I’d start working on that lengthier process, in case the lawsuit succeeds, as it very well could.

Ms. Tenenbaum was the first state education superintendent to accept the fact that the state of South Carolina has a constitutional duty to make sure all kids in this state have a shot at a decent education, and so she took over Allendale County schools in 1999. But despite her efforts to work with the community, the community rejected her with a vengeance fueled by a school board that, much like today’s school board, had no intention of giving up control for something so insignificant as helping provide a better education for the children in the district.

Ms. Tenenbaum eventually saw enough progress to call it a job done, but the schools kept stagnating. Then came Jim Rex, who tried cajoling the communities whose schools were failing, recruiting a host of state, regional and local partners to work with failing schools, which he rebranded “Palmetto Prioirty Schools.”

All along, Molly Spearman was watching, and learning, and today Ms. Spearman brings to the job the experience of being a teacher and assistant principal in a poor rural community, of being a legislator, of being a deputy state superintendent of education under Ms. Tenenbaum and of running the S.C. Association of School Administrators. And she brings all the lessons that she, and her predecessors, learned about trying to help failing school districts.

Ms. Spearman understands that it’s far better to convince the local school board to work with the state than to take it over. She did that last year with the board of Florence District 4. She’s about to do it with the Lee County school board.

She also understands that when the school board simply won’t cooperate, it’s time to stop negotiating and start fixing. And instead of just importing experts to run the schools, you have to build institutional capacity — teach a community to fish instead of trucking in fish, as she told me.

Alongside that, you have to build support in the community — which, ironically, the Allendale school board might have helped her do.

Ms. Spearman was supposed to appear at a school board meeting in May to go over a diagnostic review of the district. When the board suddenly uninvited her, she scheduled her own public meeting, where she didn’t have to worry about the board trying to undercut her message. More than 300 people showed up and, by her telling, “the overwhelming majority of the parents stood up and said, ‘Ms. Spearman, please come in and help us; we need your help, and we will do whatever we can do to support you.’”

Perhaps that happened simply because residents have seen the world passing them by and they’re tired of it. Perhaps it was aided by the fact that African Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Episcopal and ELCA Lutheran churches in every community of this state, including Allendale, have committed to working with Ms. Spearman to improve our schools — and, one presumes, to build community support for her efforts.

The hands-on work that the S.C. Bishops Public Education Initiative is providing in schools throughout the state is another column, but for now consider how Ms. Spearman describes the role it is playing in this one community.

“Allendale doesn’t have a lot of industry,” she said. “I can’t call up Boeing to help in the schools. But what does every community have? They have churches. This has given us a community that we can call on to get their army out.”

Who knows but that this army could be the tool that tips the balance this time, and allows Ms. Spearman — and our state, and the children of Allendale County — to succeed.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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